Pandemic led Leo to rediscover love of performing

WHAT started as a lockdown-inspired radio station has transformed into a weekly set of live shows in the heart of London.

Created by Leo Green, former saxophonist for the likes of Van Morrison and Jerry Lee Lewis, the explosive shows provide fresh twists to classic tunes.

Performing on stage alongside an array of talented musicians and singers, the jazzy, bluesy and entirely funky shows are scheduled every Thursday, Friday and Saturday in a luxury Covent Garden hotel.

“When it became obvious that it (the lockdown) was going to be more than two or three weeks, I just thought ‘I’ve got all this time now — what should I do?’,” Leo told me.

“I have a shed in the garden with a little studio where I record, so I decided to set up my own radio station.

“People would call and ask if I could do this, that or the other and it made me realise that there is obviously something that people were not getting from mainstream radio.

“What I am doing now really came out of that time of Covid because it gave me a chance to sit down and work out what I wanted to do, so I put this show together.

“I just found some classic songs from the last 30 years and reinterpreted and rearranged them in a sort of 1950s and 60s style.”

Having started the series of shows in October, 2021, while still navigating various Covid variants, further lockdowns, and the Christmas holiday period, the shows are going from strength to strength, enjoying their one-year anniversary.

And part of the shows’ success can be attributed to Leo’s natural ability to perform.

Raised in Kings Langley, Hertfordshire, Leo is the son of actress Toni Kanal and the late BBC Radio Two broadcaster, writer and musician Benny Green.

Having been raised surrounded by the performing arts and music, Leo knew he would become a musician, likening it to those who go on to work in their family business.

Something that takes years of graft and incredible dedication for many, came naturally to Leo, and, by the age of 20, he was playing sax for Jerry Lee Lewis.

And in that particular tale, he was thankful he didn’t follow the footsteps of many rockstars: long hair.

“I was playing in different bands around the country and after a gig in a Newport hotel I got a phone call from the guy there who asked if I was free for whatever the date was,” Leo, 50, said.

“And then he said ‘do you have long hair?’ so I said ‘not really’ and he replied that he had these American artists coming in and they needed a sax player because they were not bringing one of their own, but he specifically did not want anyone with long hair. It was very random.

“So off I went to this gig and it was Jerry Lee Lewis.

“I was booked for three nights and stayed for two years.”

Together with Lewis, Leo toured the world, before joining Van Morrison’s band between 1995 and 2000.

He also spent time working alongside Jools Holland and singer Daniel Bedingfield before stepping away to spend more time with family.

But a career that reads like a who’s who of prominent performers from the last 50 years also includes collaborations with the likes of Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Tom Jones and more.

He was once described by Jerry Lee Lewis as “the greatest sax player [he’s] ever worked with” and by legendary guitarist Jeff Beck as “one of the best and craziest saxophonists ever”.

And yet, among all the fanfare and big names he has performed alongside, one abiding memory stands out involving a cup of tea and a sandwich in 1996.

“I was playing with Van and Ray Charles at Wembley Arena and it just so happened to be during the week of the Euros at Wembley Stadium,” he said.

“I remember thinking it would be great because I could watch the football and then perform, but the reality was that we were stuck in the dressing room at the arena watching England Scotland on this crappy little TV with really bad reception.

“Then, after the game, we did the gig and the reason it stands out is that my dad, who never really came to my gigs because he was working or busy himself, came for this one.

“I had told him I was playing at Wembley and he had to attend, and as we are playing, I can see him walking down the aisle in between the rows of fans and I was thinking ‘what is he doing?’

“He walked towards the stage in front of all these people, gave me a little wink and a wave and then disappeared to the backstage.

“I came off the stage eventually and find him talking to all these people and I asked him where he went. And he said ‘oh, it was a bit loud for me so I went to get a cuppa and a sandwich’.

“Here I was, at 20 or 21 playing in Wembley Arena, but that really summed him up because he was so un-showbiz which was a lovely grounding to have.

“Really, I just think he wanted me to know he was there.”

Nowadays, Leo lives in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, with his wife Victoria, and their four children.

For the last 20 years he has put performing on the backseat, instead focusing on booking and promoting shows.

But with a couple of his children having started university, and another having left home to study musical theatre at a performing arts school, Leo decided to return to the spotlight.

And he has used his children as an inspiration for the jazz shows.

“I use the word jazz really openly because people like the idea of liking jazz, but no one really knows where to start and it puts a lot of people off,” he added.

“So, I just tried to come up with something that is really accessible to all because I am not trying to make a great artistic statement.

“I just want people to come along and forget about life for a few hours and have a bit of fun and that was my starting point.”

Leo analysed what was on offer from a live music perspective for his children and was disappointed to find that, apart from massive venues, there was little else.

Determined to find something people his age and the younger generation could enjoy, he joined forces with a new hotel in Covent Garden — Middle Eight.

Performing in their modern take on a speakeasy downstairs bar, QT, the shows’ uniqueness is that it appeals to everyone.

“I wanted something that my children wouldn’t be embarrassed to come along to with their mates,” he said.

“I thought that the common ground where generations meet really is music and I believed if I can select classic songs, generations from my sons to those of my mother-in-law could share in the experience.

“From George Michael and Bon Jovi to Jess Glynne and Justin Bieber, we rearrange all kinds of songs — and people seem to be enjoying it.

“I did not think I was going to go back to being a full-time musician, but it is such a great feeling when you are playing to see 19 and 20-year-olds in one corner and 75-year-olds in another.

“It really brings the generations together.”

Amid all his musical milestones and achievements, the father-of-four is also proud of his Jewish heritage.

“I am not a religious person, but I am a very Jewish person and I am proud of that identity,” he added.

“From a music perspective, I have played at lots of Jewish weddings and really enjoyed doing them.

“The flag I am trying to wave often, and something that people don’t even realise, is that many of the songs by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, which I love, were written by Jews.

“It is a great Jewish thing that I am really passionate about that the Great American Songbook has all these amazing songs influenced by Jewish people and having people learn more about it.”

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